There's some really scary stuff on TV these days. The news presents us with a hundred disasters from around the world which we can't fix, and blinds us to the difference we can make in our families and communities. Soap operas blur the boundary of fiction and reality by telling the stories of 'normal' people whose 'normal' lives involve rather a lot of lying, cheating and murder. And then there's the episode of Bob the Builder where Dizzy gets carried away and they all drown slowly in a vast pit of wet cement.
Actually, no, I just imagined that last one. ('Can we fix it? Yes we... glurk...')
I didn't imagine an episode of Clifford's Puppy Days I saw recently, though. The little red dog and his animal friends were organising some kind of party. (You can probably tell I was watching every detail intently). Each of them found a job to do that suited their special talent. For instance, the bird could fly up and hang the ceiling decorations. Clifford went around giving assistance but got a bit upset because he couldn't work out what his special talent was. He kept being reassured that he had one - he just had to discover it. In the end, everyone agreed that Clifford's talent was helping people. After all, everyone has something special they're good at.
Maybe all that was meant was that no one's rubbish at everything. It didn't come across that way, however. The implication was that everyone has a unique gift that marks them out. There's an episode of Tweenies that has an identical plot and message. (Jake's special talent turns out to be that he's the best at being an audience!)
As I see it, though, special talents aren't usually things that can just be discovered. Sure, everyone is better at some things than others, but to turn something that we're good at into something we have a real talent for takes work and dedication. I know a kid who wants to be a professional footballer. He's always been good at football but honing his talent involves training four days a week plus regular matches and he's been doing this for years.
That's a lot of commitment with no guarantees at the end.
Suggesting that we all, by rights, have something we're great at undervalues effort and is bound to lead to disappointment. We are not all born equal - unique and equally deserving of love, but not equal. We have different natural abilities and different opportunities. If we teach our children to derive their self-worth from what they are capable of doing compared to others, it's unlikely they will have a clear picture of themselves. It is up to them, with our help and encouragement, to make the most of their own circumstances but, even then, putting in effort doesn't necessarily lead to success.
Failure happens. I know I don't have to look far to see that. As a housedad, the day can bring all kinds of possibilities:
- A glorious visit to the swing park packed with fun and giggles.
- A roundabout disaster resulting in vomit and tears, followed by a walk home in the rain without waterproofs.
- Shouting and frustration.
- Cuddles and stories.
- Neverending Teletubbies and Play-Doh soiled socks.
- Homemade biscuits and sandcastles.
- Dozing beneath a blanket on the sofa with a sick child under my arm.
Oh, and tell them not to listen to Clifford. He and his friends have a special talent for talking nonsense. They've been practicing for years.
* * *
Moments from the last week when each of my children were themselves and made me smile:
- At school, Fraser had to pretend to be a Viking setting off to settle in a distant land and write about his experiences. As far as provisions were concerned he wrote the following:
'I packed plenty of vegetables like sweetcorn and carrots but not potatoes because they're undiscovered yet.'
- Lewis appeared to be having a disagreement with his swimming instructor and I went over to intervene. He was wearing armbands made of green foam and she wanted him to put on orange ones. She explained to me that the orange ones were much less bouyant and he didn't need the green ones anymore. I explained that Lewis really, really likes green.
Somehow I had to persuade him to swap. "Put the orange ones on instead, Lewis."
He wasn't having any of it. "I want to wear the green ones."
"The orange ones will help you learn to swim better," I coaxed.
The obvious answer was 'because they'll make you sink'. Luckily, I have a fair amount of experience with this whole dad thing now and I chose my words carefully. "Because they're made of different stuff."
"Oh, OK," he said and swapped them over excitedly.
The mind of a five-year-old is a truly peculiar place.
- I was hurrying Marie up to her bath and she screamed and shouted, "You don't chase me! You don't chase me!"
"OK," I said, trying to quell her panic. "I won't chase you."
"Good," she said. "We just be friends, OK?"
"All right," I said, nodding.
Then, suddenly all smiles, she reached out and led me hand-in-hand up the stairs, laughing to herself. It was unexpected and lovely.